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The Price of the Paperless Revolution

ISSUE:  Fall 2010

We hiked along a twisting, curse-worthy trail down the craggy face of Brownsberg plateau, hacking our way toward Witi Creek. I had been told by the administrators of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve that many of the waterways that snaked through the country’s only national park on the northern edge of the Amazon were dotted with illegal gold mines, but I wanted to see for myself. The miners—still known as pork-knockers from the era when they survived in the bush on salt pork and scrabbled cutbanks with pickaxes and pans—now worked with bulldozers and backhoes, hydro cannons and towering sluices, and employed a mercury separation process that was steadily poisoning the tributaries of the Suriname River. I followed my guide, crisscrossing the creek, ducking under downed limbs and fording at shallows, until we came to a sudden shaft of sunlight. We stepped from the trees onto the lip of a road ripped through the forest and picked our way up the muddy ruts to an open expanse the size of a football stadium. Gravel piles, some more than ten feet high, were heaped all around. We scrambled up one to see giant pools filled with stagnant water turned emerald by contaminants. The Surinamese government estimates that more than one hundred fifty square miles of its virgin rainforest have been leveled and more than three-quarters of the native fish species extirpated by such mining—and for what?

The answer surprised me. Though a high percentage of illegally mined gold still goes toward making jewelry, the real growth market is in the manufacture of modern electronics—computer CPUs, card edge connectors, USB cables. And it’s not just gold. There’s lead and tin in circuit boards and solder, copper in wiring and integrated circuits, lithium in rechargeable batteries, and nickel and iron in the structural components and bodies of most computers, televisions, and cell phones. Such demand for these metals naturally drives their rapid extraction—often in economically depressed countries where miners work under dangerous conditions, use environmentally devastating methods, and toil for the benefit of dictators and military strongmen.These facts are especially troubling as we hurtle toward the new age of paperless publication and the swift rise of the electronic reader.

In July, revealed that sales of e-books were now outstripping the sales of hardcover books, with the possibility that their sales will double that of hardcovers by the end of the year. With the appearance of Apple’s iPad in April—and its stunning sales of four million units in its first four months—Barnes & Noble dropped the price of its Nook e-reader and Amazon announced the release of a cheaper version of its Kindle in July. Each of these companies is expected to unveil souped-up and cheaper e-readers in time for Christmas. All of which has media gurus heralding this as the year that publishing will finally go paperless—and trumpeting that change as the latest step in the greening up of American consumerism.

But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

By some estimates, small electronics already account for more global carbon emissions than the airline industry, and the wave of new handheld and portable devices—from smartphones to laptops to e-readers—stand poised to wreak untold havoc, much of it in developing nations. For this issue, we have sent writers and photographers to locations around the world to document the impact of artisanal, small-scale, and industrial mining. Matthew Power and Fabio Cuttica visit the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales dreams that lithium deposits will turn his country into a world power. Delphine Schrank and Mark Craemer travel to the Bisie tin mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a tent city of workers collect ore by hand to fuel a never-ending civil war. Louie Palu photographs the hard rock mines of Quebec and Ontario, where generations of miners—and their families—have been exposed to unspeakable health hazards. Annie Murphy and Rodrigo Llano venture to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile where the Gaby copper mine is literally burying a way of life. Jessica Benko and Bear Guerra go to the Peruvian Amazon, where gold mines—very much like those I saw in Suriname—threaten the health of the forest and the people who live there. J. Malcolm Garcia and Darren McCollester journey to Kosovo, where a community of displaced Roma have been relocated onto the tailings of the Trepča lead mine—with heartbreaking consequences. Nathaniel Miller looks at the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, a toxic reminder of the long-term effects of mining metals like copper. Allison Joyce takes us to the coalfields of Jharia in India, where the majority of the coal is harvested that fuels the electronics industry of South Asia and powers the call centers at the heart of tech support. Last but not least, Elliott D. Woods weighs the real prospects for Afghanistan’s mining future against a leaked Pentagon document estimating that more than a trillion dollars’ worth of minerals lay locked in the mountains there.

Taken together, these essays reveal the hidden price of the paperless revolution. Every MacBook and iPad, every Kindle and Droid contains the labor of hundreds of invisible workers, uncounted lives foreshortened by poisoned water and air, and a landscape permanently scarred by our voracious scavenging. No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood. This is not to say that our information age is inherently bad. The protests after last year’s elections in Iran were largely organized over Twitter and documented via YouTube. Across Africa, farmers are using smartphones to access daily market prices via the Internet, assuring fairer compensation for their crops. This summer our government used Facebook to enlist and organize volunteers for the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill. But in our rush to embrace the new—the smaller, the faster, the more powerful—we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production. We must not forget that even in this age of enlightenment, much of the world remains stooped in black tunnels, tracing veins deeper into darkness.


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